A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.
UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.
Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.
In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.
Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.
Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Continue reading